Phil Richert of rural Decorah salvaged what is left of a bygone era and is sharing it with those around him. His North Winneshiek School traveling exhibit will make its maiden voyage at the upcoming Laura Days Parade Saturday, June 24, sponsored by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum. The parade will make its way down the main street in the village of Burr Oak. (Driftless Multimedia photos by Roz Weis)
By Roz Weis,
‘Once a Mustang, Always a Mustang’
The story of how a Winneshiek County man came to possess the most extensive collection of North Winneshiek School memorabilia needs to be prefaced with a bit of history.
Phil Richert is a self-proclaimed lifelong North Winneshiek Community supporter. He grew up in the time of the old, rural one-room country schools, attending the Hesper No. 3 School (also known as Kenyon School) until the third grade. When he was in elementary school, the rural schools of the county, which at one time numbered more than 130 (with 17 in the North Winneshiek area alone), were all closed and students were integrated into the public schools.
When those one-room schoolhouses were closed, the school maps, supplies, blackboards, desks and other artifacts were auctioned off to the highest bidder. And the items were then shoved on a shelf somewhere.
“No one collected anything back then,” he said, “and it all went to the wind.”
Richert was there for the groundbreaking of the North Winneshiek Community School in the early 1960s. The school opened in 1964, replacing those one-room schoolhouses in northern Winneshiek County. The initial North Winn enrollment for kindergarten through high school was 400 students.
Richert is a proud 1973 graduate of North Winn High School, and his support of the school has flourished over the years. He served on the District School Board for 16 years.
North Winneshiek boasts more than 1,000 graduates in its long history in the county.
A seemingly steady decline in enrollment forced the North Winn School to drop high school in 2001. High school students enrolled in either Decorah High School or Mabel-Canton in Minn. By 2016, the North Winn School Board approved closing the school and consolidating with Decorah School District.
In 2019, the school was closed permanently. Due to the increased cost of building upkeep, the Decorah School Board voted to sell the building and its contents at an auction last fall.
That’s when Richert decided to save some of the North Winneshiek memorabilia for future generations.
“Before the school closed, I told the board I wasn’t going to let it all go to the wind,” he said. “I was there the day they sold the building last fall … and I got the sign!”
Seeing this collection of all things “North Winneshiek School” leaves one begging for more. The exhibit illustrates a timeline from the early years of North Winn School.
After purchasing many of the artifacts, Richert knew the items should be shared with the public. He refused to allow the artifacts to be locked away, out of sight, in a storage building.
“They need to be shared,” he commented.
And that’s when he came up with the idea of a traveling exhibit of sorts.
“Since I have no place to display it,” he said, “I decided to take it to the people.”
He has created a unique traveling exhibit, which will be showcased at parades in the area over the summer months. The float will bring back a lot of memories for North Winn graduates and
families, who still hold fond memories of their years at the school.
Rickert’s traveling exhibit will make its maiden voyage at the upcoming Laura Days Parade Saturday, June 24. Laura Days is sponsored by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum in Burr Oak.
The parade float boasts everything from the country school bell used in the rural school of the North Winn District to a vintage Mustang band uniform, a hand-cranked pencil-sharpener, a cafeteria tray, an antique megaphone, athletic awards, yearbooks, trophies, senior picture posters, band equipment, keys to the old school buses, monogrammed items galore and much, much more.
Richert said his future plans for the “Once A Mustang, Always a Mustang” collection include finding a permanent location for the exhibit.